The Genderbread Person: A Critique
Recently, a graphic called The Genderbread Person was introduced to the world by Sam Killermann of It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. The graphic and blog post that discussed it were being passed around all over the internet. But does The Genderbread Person (GP) accurately address the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality?
Let me preface this post by saying that I appreciate Mr. Killermann’s work as a queer ally. I think the GP is a great conversation starter–especially for people who have not thought much about sex, gender, and sexuality. I used the graphic in one of my graduate classes last week to spur conversation about these categorizations. I also plan to use it in an upcoming sex/gender lecture to introduce the idea of sex, gender, and sexuality as more than binary oppositions to a class full of young introduction to anthropology students. It can be a great introduction to these complex ideas.
That being said, I have a few issues with the graphic and with his blog post explaining the graphic. I’m going to start at the beginning of his post and work my way through it. Let’s get started!
To begin with, the blog post introducing the graphic was called “Breaking Through the Binary: Gender Explained Using Continuums,” but I don’t feel that it actually breaks through the binaries. All of the categories are still based on the oppositional binaries of male/man/boy vs. female/woman/girl, they just leave room in the middle for “combinations of the two.” What about people who fall outside of these categories? What about people who claim both but don’t feel they fit in the middle? The continuums are clearly an improvement over binaries in that they demonstrate another level of complexity; however, they still fail to demonstrate the fluidity of sex, gender, and sexuality–things that can change not just over long periods of time, but from moment to moment in people’s daily lives (note: he does address fluidity under gender expression, but the continuums still have no way to express this fluidity).
Another problem I have with the overall post is that it is very “Western.” There is no caveat that this way of breaking down sex, gender, and sexuality is a particularly scientific/Western construct. There are societies with very different sex, gender, and sexuality constructions. As I will argue below, the way we culturally construct these things is extremely important because it affects how these things are expressed or experienced.
Gender Identity & Gender Expression
Killermann defines gender identity as how a person thinks about their gender. His discussion here is more or less acceptable as far as the standard definition of gender identity. However, some scholars such as Donna Haraway and Judith Butler have argued that categories like gender identity (and, really, any of the categories on the GP) have essentializing tendencies and do not allow for the multiplicities and complexities of identity.
Gender expression is defined here as how a person demonstrates their gender. He says that gender expression is based on “traditional” gender roles, which vary from society to society (a point he leaves out). Gender expression is highly dependent upon culture because it requires mutually intelligible meanings in order for the expression to be understood. This is why cross-cultural gender expression is problematic. The ways that people in one society express their gender may be radically different than another, which can be misinterpreted. The example of clothing comes readily to mind. I’ve heard people ask “Why do Scottish men wear skirts?” The implication being that wearing skirts is something that women do and, thus, that Scottish men who wear kilts must be more feminine.
Of course, within cultures the ways in which people express their gender changes over time. “Traditional” gender roles is a bit misleading because “traditional” is chronometrically ambiguous. Many of the gender roles people consider traditional in the United States today (e.g., pink is for girls, blue is for boys) are historically recent. So, what constitutes “traditional” in this definition?
What is Gender?
A major problem with the Genderbread Person is that gender itself is never defined. He uses the term to discuss gender identity and gender expression, but he never gives a clear definition of what he means by gender. Is it a combination of gender identity and gender expression? Is it something all-together different? Don’t gender identity and gender expression assume a thing called gender that precedes–or at least co-arises with–those categories? A broad definition of what gender is would be useful.
Let’s Talk About Sex
My biggest problem with the GP is the section on “biological sex.” Killermann defines biological sex as:
Biological sex refers to the objectively measurable organs, hormones, and chromosomes you possess. Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant estrogen, and you can grow a baby in your stomach area. Being male means having testes, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, predominant testosterone, and you can put a baby in a female’s stomach area. Being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.
The main problem with this is that sex is not completely biological, but is also culturally constructed (and, therefore, not “objectively measurable”). In Sexing the Body, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling writes:
Our bodies are too complex to provide clear-cut answers about sexual difference. The more we look for a simple physical basis for “sex,” the more it becomes clear that “sex” is not a pure physical category. What bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender. (p. 4)
She goes on in the book to discuss how the ways that we conceptualize gender structures not only our social and political systems, but also our physical bodies. As anthropologist Katrina Karkazis demonstrates in her book Fixing Sex, the cultural and social mores (not objective metrics) of doctors are usually the determining factor in how they handle intersex births. For example, doctors will often use size to determine whether genitals “should be” a clitoris or a penis. Intersex activists have developed a phall-o-meter as a teaching tool to demonstrate the arbitrariness of this method. Further, how doctors choose to operate on intersex infants is steeped in gendered understandings of bodies. One now-famous quote from a doctor sums up the “objectivity” of the decision making process for intersex surgery: “It’s easier to make a hole than build a pole.”
Killermann’s definition of sex is extremely essentializing. What if a person has Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) but never finds out? Are they still intersex, or are they female? Is there not also a level of identity involved with sex? These are constructed categories that we slot people into based on medical and scientific understandings of the body, which are constantly changing. They are not “objectively” true.
Another aspect that is missing from this category of the GP is transsexuality, which is different from intersexuality.
Now, this is not to say that bodies are not biological or that hormones don’t affect growth and development (Fausto-Sterling spends a great deal of time in Sexing the Body discussing the problematics of using hormones to determine sex–well worth the read!). What I am saying is that I agree with Haraway and Fausto-Sterling that bodies are biologically and culturally co-produced, and that you cannot separate the nature from the culture, which is exactly what these categories attempt to do.
Killermann has already taken some of the criticisms of the GP to heart and is working on some updates. One of the problems with these continuums is that it doesn’t allow for people who fall outside of them. This is the case on the original Sexual Orientation continuum, which excluded asexuals. His new-and-improved version changes “Sexual Orientation” to “Attracted to” and includes a separate bar for “asexual” (that, as I understand, can also exist on a continuum, which is not well-represented in his new category).
I do appreciate that his original category explanation tried not to reduce sexual orientation to behavior by leaving it open to multiple levels of attraction. However, the citation of Kinsey is troublesome because it reduces sexual orientation to an internal feeling and leaves out how sexuality is also part of social identity. So, a person who identifies as a man can be attracted to men and not consider himself gay. Is it right of us to label a person as gay if they do not identify that way? And what criteria do we base that label on if we don’t have access to their inner world? This discussion of sexual orientation leaves out the social/cultural aspects of attraction.
Interconnection versus Interrelation: A Useless Distinction
Before ending the post, Killermann claims that gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are interrelated, but not interconnected. This is a useless distinction for a couple of reasons. First, “relate” and “connect” are synonymous. Second, “connect” does not imply determine. I am in agreement that the categories do not determine the others, so I think this is just a failure of terminology and not a failure of idea.
As previously noted, Mr. Killermann has called upon his readers and any interested parties to help improve the GP. There are some good suggestions, but I cannot help but think that no matter what he comes up with it will still be problematic–because sex, gender, and sexuality are inherently problematic categories. There will never be clearly delineated categories into which all people will fit. No matter how we draw the continuums or what other categorizations we devise, they will inevitably erase someone’s experiences through exclusion. All that these categories really accomplish is allowing us to talk about people’s experiences by somewhat mutually intelligible means (at least, mutually intelligible to those who are “in the know” about the categories).
Re: related vs connected
I think Killermann is just being a bit unclear what he means. I would say that all combinations of categories are possible, but some combinations are more prevalent than others. Also, intersections of categories will affect a person’s experience in a way that individual categories do not. For example, a femme man is likely to have experiences different from both femme women and masculine men.
Oversimplifications are necessary and useful as a teaching tool, though they should include the caveat that they are oversimplifications.
Categorization always involves focusing on some properties while discounting others (otherwise every category would have 1 member making the whole endeavour useless), and it is necessary not only for communication but also for intelligible thought – try understanding 7 billion different ideas of gender and you’ll see why the computational hardware of the human brain is completely inadequate to deal with complex topics without heuristics and approximations.
Since gender is a complex topic, most ideas which make a teaching aid more accurate will make it more complicated and more difficult to understand, and therefore less useful as a teaching tool.
Or we could just change it to “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly gendery-wendery stuff”.
Or you could, you know, read the article more closely. I specifically address your comment twice in the article, in the second paragraph and in the final paragraph.
I saw that image in some other post recently and immediately disagreed with the linear representations in it. The jungle of terms to describe people’s gender, sex, sexuality and so on clearly illustrates the complexity of this.
Gender identity for instance is better described as a two dimensional field rather than a linear axis between male and female. Also discussed in Anne Faust-Sterling’s book.
Last week I spoke to a girl that felt she was a lot male and a lot female at the same time. As a transgender person I have too tried to put myself on the male-female axis and failed.
The problem for transsexuals for instance has historically been that in order to get corrective treatment and surgery you would need to put your gender identity far away from your assigned sex in order to get the help you needed. So what about MtF “tomboys” who identify as women? Where do they fit in?
The homo- to heterosexual axis is, as you pointed out, even more problematic. I’m partly asexual, and in addition as transgender don’t feel that “homo-” or “hetero-” are very clear labels at all. Not even making the axis go between attracted to male or female adds up as it again assumes a gender binary. How about people who are attracted to trans* people or androgynous people? The dimensionality of the sexuality-axis is approaching the level of string theory …
Yet, I find that people who’re aware of the complexity of this really don’t have much problem describing themselves. The problem only arise when people try to make a simplistic model of the beautiful and exciting thing that is human diversity.
Here’s my attempt at updating the genderbread person.
I also posted this on “improving the genderbread person”.
Here’s the main points:
1. The image of the genderbread person is fine. Gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex are good categories and are in the correct positions.
2. The scales are the problem. None of these things are on a scale. In fact they are complex, multidimensional spaces that change over time. That’s why I used Calabi-Yau shapes in my image, which I see as the universal symbol for “this is complicated”.
3. There are many kinds of attraction. I know people who identify as bisexual and heteroromantic, and one person who can be romantically and physically attracted to anyone, but identifies as asexual since she doesn’t enjoy sex. Some people like having sex but have no interest in romance, others like both but they keep them separate. There’s all sorts of complexity there.
4. We can treat orientation as a map from gender space to attraction space. It’s like a computer program that takes a kind of gender/sex combination as input, and tells you what kinds of attraction you might feel for this person.
For example, I identify as a straight male, but I could actually be physically attracted to anyone with a female or androgynous gender expression. I wouldn’t want to have sex with someone with a penis, regardless of their gender identity or expression. However I might fall in love with someone like that. This is all part of my orientation, which is complicated and probably different from other straight guys.
It’s a bit of an aside, but I live in Scotland, so I found the implication of kilt wearing Scotsmen being more feminine hilarious. I you saw a crowd of them on the way to some international sporting event, as I have, then you’d see the whole thing is not at all feminine, and find it just as funny.